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How to Write a Rock Song (Part 2)

Setting Words to Music

In the second article of this series, we investigate the problems posed by setting words to music — how to set about writing a lyric and how to fit the words to a syncopated melody to give an authentic rock feel, with exercises to give the necessary practice.

Anyone who has tried to write a song will have attempted to solve the problems of finding an idea for a lyric, shaping this idea into verses and choruses and fitting these to a melody. There are other considerations to be made which we will look at in future articles, as well as how to write a melody which we have already discussed. In my experience, many writers do not consciously separate these elements, often working simultaneously on every aspect of the song, starting from the initial idea which might be a part of a melody and an odd word, or perhaps an interesting chord sequence or rhythm. But, whether worked separately or in various combinations, these elements can be seen in the finished song.

It is an advantage, initially, to be able to work in a logical way, solving one problem at a time. Experience will enable shortcuts to be taken and several elements to be worked at the same time, but it helps to have a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve, especially when things go wrong.

If we first consider the lyric of a song, it can be seen that every song from Subterranean Homesick Blues to Raindrops Are Falling On My Head communicates a feeling or message using one of a variety of devices. These range from the juxtaposition of unrelated words and phrases to create images, through straightforward story-telling, to nonsense lyrics of little value except that they fit the tune. A good exercise is to write out the words of songs that you like and study them in isolation from the music. Note for example how the words are used to tell a story, whether single syllable words are used, the length of the various lines, the number of lines per verse or chorus, whether there is a rhyming scheme, what kind of mood is created, etc. Try writing a verse to replace one of the verses from the song. Start collecting words and phrases that you like for future use. These are all ways in which you can learn about lyric writing from other writers.

When thinking of ideas of your own, there are many sources that can provide inspiration. Quite a good way of writing a lyric is to take a short news item from the newspaper and convert that into verses and chorus. Even if the exercise results in failure, you might discover one word or phrase which is worth saving for future use. Another way of stimulating ideas for a song lyric might be to do something which I heard of recently which is to imagine the video that you would make to promote the song when completed, and write a lyric to suit. It is often a good idea to remain detached from the lyric, as a close emotional involvement can obscure objectivity. For example, John Cage has used I Ching (a book of chance) to determine solutions to problems in his music and at the time of Sergeant Pepper, Lennon and McCartney were inspired by the wording of old posters.

Writing a lyric is something that becomes easier the more it is practised. The idea of saving single words and phrases at first is a good one as it will conveniently tie in with the initial stages of learning to set words to music, where single words and phrases are considered first.

If we take a word like elephant, we can see that it consists of three smaller units called syllables. These are shown here separated by hyphens: el-e-phant

When the word elephant is used in normal speech, it is usual to stress the first syllable thus:

not el-e-phant v
or el-e-phant

There are some circumstances in song writing where syllables that would not be stressed in normal speech are stressed in a song lyric, either to make the line in which the word occurs fit a tune previously used for another line, or to create a particular effect. Normally though, the art of setting words to music is to make the accents or stresses in the words coincide with the accents in the music. If we were to set elephant over a straight 4/4 crotchet rhythm we might arrive at:

Figure 1.

Here the accented syllable sits on beat one, the strongest beat in the bar. This rhythm doesn't take into account the relative length of the syllables in normal speech, which might be:

Figure 2.

There are many ways in which this could be varied. Try experimenting with the numerous possibilities.

When the concept of syncopation is applied (see last month's article), we would want the accented syllable to be placed off the stressed beats in the bar.

Figure 3.

Here the rhythm of Figure 2 is brought forward by half a beat.

Figure 4.

In Figure 4 the rhythm of Figure 2 is held back by half a beat.

Practice tapping a steady 4/4 pulse and speaking the word elephant in the rhythms shown in Figures 1-4. These are the basic principles that give a rock lyric its effect — syncopation of the stressed syllables of the words.

A glance at any song lyrics will show that it is useful to use words of one syllable as these can be more easily manipulated from a stress point of view than can multi-syllable words when it comes to fitting second and third verses over existing tunes.

The cat sat on the mat

If we look at a whole line, fairly well known, it might be said that the stressed syllables (words in this case) should be cat and mat. Sometimes the word on is stressed, but in general it is better not to stress unimportant words of this type.

A rhythm for this line might be:

Figure 5a.

Syncopation produces Figures 5b and 5c.

Figure 5b.

Figure 5c.

Again, practise Figure 5a, 5b and 5c with a steady pulse and try some variations of your own. Also, experiment with some of your own words, straight at first and then syncopated settings. Use a rhythm only (no pitches) saying the words to the rhythm whilst tapping a steady pulse.

Figure 6a.

Figure 6b.

The next step is to add to this rhythmic structure pitches from the prevailing harmony. For example, if this line were to be laid over a chord of C7, we could either use the harmony notes from the chord, as in Figure 6a, or use the notes from a pentatonic scale as in Figure 6b. (In theory we could use any notes over the chord of C7, depending on the desired effect.) Practice experimenting with different harmony notes until a satisfactory effect is achieved.

Figure 7a.

Figure 7 shows my version of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, showing each stage in the setting of the words: a) marking in the hyphens and stresses, b) setting the words to a straight rhythm, c) syncopating the rhythm and d) laying the rhythm and the words over a harmonic background.

Figure 7b.

Figure 7c.

Figure 7d.


1. Lyrics
a. List words and phrases that you like for future use.
b. Analyse words of songs that you like.
c. Write new verses to existing songs.
d. Use such sources as the media, personal experience etc. to write lyrics of your own.

2. Word setting
a. Rework Figures 1-6.
b. Repeat the exercises using words of your own.
c. Use other nursery rhymes, poems, or verses of your own to produce settings similar to that of Figure 7.

In next month's article we will look at the implications of rhythmic and harmonic backgrounds for word settings.


Read the next part in this series:
How to write a Rock Song (Part 3)

Previous Article in this issue

Electro-Music Engineer

Next article in this issue

Hot Wiring Your Guitar

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Apr 1983


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Writing A Rock Song

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Feature by Martin Glover

Previous article in this issue:

> Electro-Music Engineer

Next article in this issue:

> Hot Wiring Your Guitar

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